Thursday, November 20, 2014

Phish Music Theory Discussion

Phish in the practice room, Las Vegas, NV, 10/31/14
On Halloween day, I took a look at the forum on Phish.net, a Phish fan site, to see if there were any leaks about what Phish’s Halloween set would be later that night.  As usual, the secret was well-kept, but I did find this interesting thread about Phish’s use of music theory, started by a user named DownWithDaBreeze.

Here are some of the responses.  LOTS of good information here!:

It's fairly easy to pick up a shift from a major key to minor or vice versa. A good example is almost every Ghost in 3.0. The song itself is in A minor and the jam starts off there but then goes into a major key. My favorite example is 12/31/10, check out the video below - the change from major to minor happens just around 6:45. If you can't pick it up as it happens, listen to part of the jam in the beginning and then skip towards the end, it’s night and day.  The way this usually works is knowing about relative minor keys, which are keys that have the same key signature (or set of notes) as a corresponding major key so that Ghost jam's minor key is A and relative major key is C.

Now picking up between keys (like from A major to E major) is a bit more difficult for me to do because the feel of the sound doesn't change like from a major to minor shift, just the tones change, however it’s not too hard to pick up. I can usually pick up a key change because it just sounds different. A great example is Tweezer (in A) vs. Tweezer Reprise (in D).  There’s some difference other than the key like tempo, but basically Reprise is more energizing because it’s in a higher key. But this is hard to figure out usually I don't know what key(s) they switch to unless I'm very familiar with the song or I have my guitar in front of me.


Mike takes advantage of the relationship between A minor and C major by playing the C note while Trey and Page are still in A minor, and this creates tension in the jamming, which is resolved by Trey and Page following Mike to C major.  It sounds different because of the notes they are choosing to emphasize in the scale (creating that tension), and also because changing the emphasis of the notes will affect other aspects of the music, like volume, timbre, or rhythm (Fishman isn't playing notes, but he listens to the others so well that he will change what he plays to follow the key changes). Since '97, whenever the band changes keys mid-jam, it's almost always Mike's bass note "substitutions" making it happen. 

Some popular examples:
- Wolfman's Brother from Slip Stich & Pass - song starts in Bb (B flat) major, modulates to G minor
- the 7/29/98 Riverport Gin - main song and Trey's solo are in C major, Mike's solo is in A minor, which morphs into A dominant (A7)

Another of Mike's modulation "tricks" is to start playing a perfect 4th above or below the starting note. 
- the 6/3/11 Clarkston DWD starts in A dominant, but the "A Love Supreme" jam happens once the band modulates up to D dominant.
- Golden Age from 7/18/14 Northerly Island is in C dominant, but the band quickly modulates to G dominant and stays there for about 10 minutes of goodness.


To really explain it we have to get into the modes.  Trey is basically a master of the modes and switching between them which I believe he is doing in this Ghost, and most Phish songs really.  I’m still a novice when it comes to these, but I understand them to some extent.  So for that Ghost they are in the key of C major which has 7 modes each with a root note based in the C major scale, each mode has the same notes as the C major scale, only the root note is different, as are the intervals between notes that are used to build the scale. THIS is what really gives them their unique sound. So in the Ghost, Trey (and I assume the rest of the band) starts off the jam using the A Aeolian mode, which is the same as the natural minor scale.  A is the 6th note in the C major scale and Aeolian is the 6th mode, this is also why A is the natural minor to C major, the 6th note in any major scale is the natural minor/aeolian mode. Then as @kipmat pointed out which I hadn't noticed Mike starts focusing on the C note - signaling a shift to the C Ionian mode which is the same as the major scale. 

This stuff is definitely confusing and I still struggle with incorporating it into my playing. But shifting from one mode to another is a great and impressive skill to have. It can allow for changes that are smooth and not so obvious, Like in this Ghost, while there is a definite switch between sounds as they go from A Aeolian to C Ionian the transition is very smooth and somewhat subtle if you aren't looking for the change. 


To put it more simply C Major (or C Ionian as it is called modally), D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian all contain the same notes. No matter what you do with these modes they will also always contain the same notes. Now the difference between them is the "tonal center" which is the first note of the mode (ex. D dorian the tonal center is D) and this note is what gives them their unique sound. Some of these modes give a more minor sound (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian), some will have a major sound (Ionian, Lydian) and some a dominant sound (Mixolydian). Phish sometimes utilizes multiple modes which they vamp on (Reba) and sometime will only play over one for a prolonged period of time (Ghost). The way that Phish modulates is by shifting their tonal center as has been stated before, but also they will change modes using the same tonal center but a different modal structure (ex. in Ghost they often modulate from C major to C mixolydian, which is accomplished by flattening the 7th scale degree of C major in the case B becomes Bb). Playing modally is one of the easier methods of improvisation, but to be good at it you have to listen to the other members of the group and rely on insinuating chord changes rather than actually changing chords (Page does this most often by changing the inversion of the chord he is playing, thus emphasizing a different note in the chord).


One thing I wanted to bring up - traditional western musical theory is not the only way to master complex musical forms (as found in the Phish). Don't take it for granted that this is the only approach to music even though it works for a ton of people, it's also important to do some experimenting around how your mind best retains and processes information. Perhaps you work better with visual patterns on the fretboard, or 'hear' scales/chords/modes instead of assigning them a theoretical equivalent.

The one piece of the puzzle that never lets up is that it's a ton of work to build up the mad skillz you need to write/improvise/groove on a high level. Find your system and stick with it for years, push yourself to do a ton of ear training and improvising with other musicians. Phish plays the way they do because of their work ethic and commitment to creative music, not because they have mastered theory (OK maybe there is a teeny bit of natural talent in the mix as well...).


I'm at a cheapass hotel in Vegas right now, so I can't get the above video to stream, but I do know that a lot of Ghost jams end up in D mixolydian. The jam starts in A dorian, which has the exact same notes as D mixolydian (both are derived from the G major scale--G A B C D E F# G). As mentioned above, it's pretty much Mike's bass line that determines the actual mode--when he starts hanging more around the D than the A, the "color" of the jam changes. Trey & Page will pick up on it and respond by playing phrases around the D instead of the original A minor--although they're still basically using the same 7 notes.

The jam could most definitely wind up in C major too, which is indeed the relative major of Am (there's a world-class Tweezer from Auburn Hills ‘97 that comes to mind that does exactly this). The only difference, in this case, would be that the mode has an F in it instead of an F#. Obviously these guys have been doing this long enough and have good enough ears to pick up on a subtle change like that. And they don't have to pick up on it instantly--some ambiguity is totally fine while they all feel around for something to lock in on.

I don't normally come straight out and plug my website here, but the "modes workshop" and the lessons on the CAGED system on my website are pretty much exactly what you're looking for. Also there are a ton of Phish tabs & lessons. FYI you'll have to register to get to the lessons but registration is free & instant and I promise I won't spam you.  HighCountryGuitar.com


This sort of combines the stuff that @kipmat and @popsgordon123 said above.

In most Phish's jams, you can break it down to 2 basic ways that they tend to modulate between modes: relative modulation & parallel modulations. There are countless books written on this stuff, but I'll try to trim it down to just one post on .net.

Relative modulations are when the root note changes, but the pool of notes in the scale stays the same (I.E. A Dorian -> D Mixolydian).
Most people learn the modes the way it sounds like @ghostbuster is getting into it. Learn the major scale (let's use C major as an example). When you start that same scale on D instead of C, you end up playing a D Dorian scale... different root chord (D minor vs C major), same pool of notes for the scale. That's the basic idea of relative modulation. Using 3.0 Ghosts as an example, it's pretty common (especially this past summer) for the band to use a relative modulation to go from the type 1 funk vamp into type 2 bliss territory. They start the jam out in A Dorian (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) to kick off the type 1 portion. They move into the bliss section by jumping up to D Mixolydian (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C). They haven't changed the pool of notes, but by moving up to D, the root chord moves from A minor to D major, giving it that happy and uplifting feeling. As a side-note... relative modulation is also the basis for the chord scale theory of jazz improv, which a lot of improv methods fall back on. If you play guitar/bass, knowing the relative modes is essential to opening up the fretboard and getting out of those box scale shapes on the root.

Just to break down the relative modulations farther, here's how it would work across the 7 modes using the same pool of notes from the generic 2014 Ghost example above. The first note in each mode is the root, but the individual notes are all the same.

G Ionian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
A Dorian: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
B Phrygian: B, C, D, E, F#, G, A
C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
D Mixolydian: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
E Aeloian: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D
F Locrian: F#, G, A, B, C, D, E

Depending on the goal of the jam, Phish could modulate to any of those modes simply by changing the root chord (just build the triad from the notes to find the appropriate root chord... Mixolydian would be D, F#, A... D major). Each mode is going to have a different feel even though the notes are the same. It's the tonal center (root chord) that is making them sound different.

Parallel modulations happen when the root note of the scale stays the same, but the pool of notes in the scale changes (I.E. C Mixolydian -> C Dorian). Parallel modulations can be a little harder for a band to pull off without it sounding completely jarring. This is because of the fact that you're changing the pool of notes that you're working with. One of the more common ways Phish does this is when Trey leads the band from a major-sounding Mixolydian jam into a bluesy Dorian jam. There are plenty of DwD's that dive from D Mixolydian into D Dorian as soon as Trey lays down a big blues riff. There are countless other times where the band slips back and forth between parallel modes without being so up front about it, so the above was just one example. 

I think the idea of modulating between parallel modes is where people tend to feel like they're getting in over their heads with this stuff. It can be daunting to try to think about what notes you'd need to change to modulate between 2 parallel modes. Look at how we tend to learn them. We go in order of appearance in the Ionian scale, and we end up jumping all over the place as far as adding sharps and flats goes. I'll use C major as the starting point for simplicity.

C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb
C Aeloian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb

Seriously... it's hard to think of a logical way to think of modulating on the fly when it just looks like a jumble of flats and sharps being added. As soon as someone told me to reorganize the modes into the circle of 5ths instead of learning them in the traditional order, the lightbulb turned on in my head. So if we reorganize the list above starting with the Lydian mode, the list will be set up in order most uplifting sounding mode at the top to the darkest mode at the bottom. The biggest advantage to looking at it this way is that you only have to change one note at a time as you go down the list.

C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B (flat 4th)
C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb (flat 4th, 7th)
C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd)
C Aeloian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th)
C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd)
C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 5th)

NOW it starts to make some logical sense, because you can start to look at modulations by changing only one note at a time. Moving between adjacent modes keeps the thought process to a minimum because you're only changing one note. More importantly, it keeps the modulation from sounding too jarring, because you're not changing a bunch of notes at once. It's also easier for the band as a whole to slip from one mode to another if they only have to change one note. As a bonus, if Phish is jamming in Dorian, the band can make a pretty educated guess that any parallel modulation is going to be to Aeolian or Mixolydian. That cuts the likely options down considerably, which is pretty helpful in improv. This is also one reason why Phish jams are so heavily based on Dorian and Mixolydian. It's a very easy and smooth way to make a parallel modulation between major and minor based modes. 

There are plenty of other ways Phish keeps jams interesting, some of which go way over my head, but relative/parallel modulation is a BIG one. When you hear key changes in a jam, it's most likely a relative modulation or a parallel modulation to one of the adjacent modes in the list that was reorganized by the circle of 5ths.



Some good stuff in here for sure. I'll second Lephty's site. Lots of good stuff on there.

Some people started getting into modes a bit. There's a lot of mud in how they can be presented though. For starters, I might back off on that and go first to chord tones. Learn chords EVERYWHERE on the neck. Almost every Phish tune has a progression that they improvise over. If you can grab chord tones from each one then you're good to go. The non-chord tones don't matter at that point as far as scales/modes. Any note is fair as long as there is resolution to a chord tone. 

Start simple. Just chord tones. Maybe stay in one position on the neck. Once you are comfortable there, challenge yourself to shift up a few frets and find some more chord tones. You don't have to play a ton here. Just make sure you are choosing the right notes! Once you're comfortable with all of this, start to grab a note that is one fret above or below a chord tone and go back to the chord tone. Hear that resolution! Next, look for common tones between changes and notes that will be a whole step apart. Use the note between the whole step as a chromatic passing tone. It can go on quite a bit from here. You can approach any chord tone from a half step above or below it. I can't think of any exceptions off hand.

These are some things that I've done to try to get into the theory of it. You'll start to hear the functions of each chord and where each note wants to resolve. You'll want to know where the chords are diatonic (belonging to the same scale) and when two chords are derived from different scales, but if you've got the chords down, the scales can be less important (sometimes).

As I said, most of their tunes are progressions. Take ACDC Bag. The chords are A C D C F A G. Don't worry about a scale. Just play the notes from each chord. Sample In a Jar - A C G D A E Em D. Right away you can figure that the A and C chords are not diatonic because A (major) has a C# in it. C major does not. (Obviously, because it's C!). However, C G and D all come from the same scale. So, if you want, you can use a G major scale over all of these, but you really want to emphasize chord tones still. G D and A can also come from the same scale (D major or a relative mode depending on root emphasis). This gives you two options for scales over the G and D. Next, D A and E come from the A major scale. More options there. E and Em obviously don't come from the same scale but Em and D can. The first E (major) is linked to the chords above it. The Em has more in common with the chord that follows, D. That's from D major or E Dorian. Maybe a little confusing at first but when you've done this stuff for years and years it gets a lot easier.

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